Sebastopol's Luther Burbank’s Experiment Farm, one of little-known treasures of Sonoma County, is hallowed ground for anyone interested in gardens or plant cultivation.
It was here that, from 1885 to 1926, famed horticulturist Luther Burbank developed many of the 800-plus varieties of fruit and nut trees, flowers, and vegetables for which he's celebrated, including the Santa Rosa plum, a Freestone peach, and Shasta daisy.
Burbank actually lived in what is now downtown Santa Rosa, making the 17-mile round trip to his 18-acre farm by bicycle. After his death, the farm was leased to a nursery until 1957. Eventually Burbank’s widow sold the property, but stipulated that three acres remain undeveloped as a memorial to her husband.
In 1974, local historians formed the Western Sonoma County Historical Society (WSCHS) to protect the remaining acreage. They removed vast amounts of poison oak and blackberry bushes, rebuilt an exact replica of a barn destroyed by fire, and restored a small cottage that's now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
For gardeners, the best part of a visit to the 3.5-acre farm is the chance to take a docent-led or self-guided tour of the grounds, which contain living specimens of Burbank's work.
"Most impressive are the chestnut trees," said Erin Sheffield, a member of the WSCHS board and chair of the Burbank Farm Committee. "They're huge. They always bring to mind that Longfellow poem, 'Under the spreading chestnut tree.' Chestnut blight wiped out millions of American chestnut trees, and Burbank imported Chinese chestnut trees in order to hybridize them with the American trees for resistance to blight. We have half a dozen of those."
Other trees planted by Burbank include several kinds of walnut trees. "One is a Royal Walnut," Sheffield said. "He crossed an Eastern Walnut and a California Black Walnut, and planted one in 1885. It's getting weaker, because it's old, but it's still spectacular. In the past, it produced one ton of nuts every season."
One of Burbank's apple trees contains an amazing 25 grafts. "That's 25 different kinds of apples," Sheffield noted. "They blossom and ripen at different times. The California Rare Fruit Growers have labeled each of the grafts."
Other Burbank-era plants include plum trees, Chinese quince, crab apple, and a trifoliate orange tree from China, whose fruit Sheffield describes as being "as juicy and flavorful as a golf ball.”
Because the orange tree is hardy to 15 below zero, Sheffield said, “The guess is that Burbank wanted to cross it with an eating orange to produce a tree that could withstand low temperatures. Imagine if he'd succeeded. We'd be surrounded by orange trees now instead of vineyards!"
For self-guided tours, look for the free trail maps on the kiosk and barn. Docent tours are also available, by appointment. And don’t miss the plant sale every Wednesday, 9 a.m.-noon.
Luther Burbank Gold Ridge Experiment Farm, Enter through 7777 Bodega Avenue, Sebastopol, CA; 707-829-6711.
Written by Sonoma Insider Suzie Rodriguez.